Made with ChatGPT
Must we inform our readers when we use powerful new writing tools?
[Cross-posted on Substack — follow along for more]
A 5th grader sends an essay to his teacher for a school assignment.
An employee at a non-profit submits a grant proposal to the NIH.
A travel blogger posts an article about a surfing spot in Maui.
They all have one thing in common: they were co-written with ChatGPT.
ChatGPT uses large language models (LLMs), a relatively new form of AI capable of producing text so original and fluent that human readers can’t tell whether the text was written by a man or a machine.
LLMs represent an incredible development in the field of AI, and conversational proficiency is a major milestone for artificially intelligent systems and their engineers. It’s a momentous scientific achievement, and one we should take care to revere with equal measures of awe and trepidation.
But what’s striking about ChatGPT in particular is that it’s so gosh darn good at a very special craft: writing.
For the first time, everyday folks are able to access these AI systems and use them as if they’re writing alongside a real person, and that means that ChatGPT and its successors (coming soon, and no doubt more powerful) are poised to fundamentally restructure our relationship with the written word.
Writing used to be reserved for the elite — the scholars and scribes, the monks and priests, the kings and their accountants.
Then, everything changed with Guttenberg and movable type.
After the invention of the printing press and the subsequent movement towards mass literacy, writing went from something that only the well-off in society could do to something that only the worst-off in society couldn’t do. In 1820, 12% of the population could read and 88% couldn’t. By 2015 those figures had completely reversed. Now, reading and writing are fundamental building blocks of society, and none of that would have been possible without the invention of the press.
Are LLMs like the printing press and the push towards mass literacy, precipitating a sea-change in the way that humans relate to written communication?
It’s a possibility, but there’s another historical example that might offer more…